Lynch’s verdict is that Obama has framed the relationship better than the previous administration did for most of its tenure, which has helped to further marginalize al-Qaeda, but also that the framing will have to have actual results to remain effective:
First, the good news. I think that Obama’s initial approach has been outstanding, reframing America’s relationship with the Muslim world around a broader lens than terrorism. His personal public diplomacy has achieved its initial goal: a fresh start, a new conceptual frame, and a serious engagement based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.” His approach resolutely undermines al-Qaeda’s efforts to impose a binary “West vs Islam” clash of civilizations narrative, and very effectively disaggregates the problem and marginalizes al-Qaeda. He also has taken seriously the political grievances which make the al-Qaeda narrative attractive to average Arabs and Muslims who don’t share its radical ideology– pledging withdrawal from Iraq, promising to close Guantanamo, engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
And this has paid off in the real world. As I’ve argued several times recently, al-Qaeda is more marginal than it has been since 9/11 (at least in the Arab world — this may be different in South Asia or Europe, where I pay less close attention). It has simply lost its ability to present itself as the avatar of generic resistance. Al-Qaeda thrives on, indeed requires, a polarized environment in which its radical strategy represents one side of an all-consuming clash of civilizations. Much of the Bush administration’s approach to the “GWOT” gave it just what it needed; it got better towards the end of his second term, and Obama has built upon and greatly accelerated the progress.
It’s worth remembering that mostly, they did it to themselves (with some help from their adversaries, of course). They haven’t carried out the big attacks on the U.S., thankfully. What their affiliates could do were local “soft target” attacks in Arab countries which killed Muslims and deeply alienated mainstream Arabs who might have thrilled to attacks on U.S. troops occupying Iraq. It now faces an almost universally hostile Arab mass media and a daunting gallery of enemies — not just America’s allied governments but also the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and more. Internal critiques of its tactics are everywhere, and magnified by this hostile Arab media, while the movement itself grew more doctrinally pure. Its videos get little traction and have little impact on Arab public debate. Its like-minded movements have failed to gain a foothold in Gaza and Lebanon, and it continues to suffer the effects of their strategy in Iraq. And at the ideological level, Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s declaration of its ideology as a mad declaration of war on the whole world has resonated.
This strong beginning and reoriented conceptual framework is a big part of my continuing “A-” grade for his overall foreign policy performance.
But there’s less good news as well. Al-Qaeda is resilient and adaptive, and even if its ideology is unpopular it still offers a potent and compelling narrative. Bin Laden’s address last month was far better crafted and resonated more widely than most recent AQ productions. The ideology has spread far enough and has matured enough that it may no longer need AQ Central for direction. It may have failed to gain a foothold in Lebanon or Gaza, but the fact that those who share its ideology tried shows that the mobilized base is still out there searching. Yemen’s descent into multiple wars has created broken space within which the previously struggling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could reconstitute. The general spirit of resistance (muqawima) is strong and growing at the popular level — and, as more moderate Islamist competitors struggle with regime repression and democratic doors close, openings might be found to siphon off recruits, funds, or support.
And Obama’s window is closing. Arab audiences see Guantanamo still open (including in an endlessly repeating al-Jazeera promo), US troops escalating in Afghanistan, Gaza still blockaded, and no settlement freeze or peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. They have seen little follow-up on the ground on the Cairo address (regardless of what’s been cooking secretly in Washington). A narrative is clearly hardening that Obama has not delivered on his promises, and that he hasn’t really changed American policies despite his personal appeal. U.S. officials may complain that this is unfair, that it’s only been four months since Cairo, that they are preparing a lot of programs… but the world isn’t fair. This window isn’t closed yet, but it’s closing fast and opinions appear to be hardening. I don’t think that the risk here is that al-Qaeda will take advantage of it, given its weakened state — in fact, Secretary Gates made an uncharacteristic mistake when he lapsed back to the Bush-era argument that we had to win in Afghanistan because otherwise al-Qaeda would capitalize. It’s more that the mobilized Arab and Muslim publics which Obama hoped to win over will be lost.
He also poses ten questions about how the goal of “combating violent extremism” should be accomplished.